Cynthia May can’t promise you’ll be the next Picasso, Dali or Monet, but she will make sure that you properly channel your inner artist – and guide you toward painting the town red… and green, yellow, blue and brown.
May is co-founder of Cynthia’s Artistic Expressions, an art gallery and painting company she owns with her husband, W.B. May, a self-taught artist whose works of photorealism are being shown this month at the Pan African Film & Arts Festival in Los Angeles.
Cynthia May is a trained nurse, long employed with the Veterans Affairs healthcare system. She said she grew up drawing pictures of “fashion, clothes and girls with lots of hair.” She and her husband are Chicago natives and high school sweethearts. They’re also Navy veterans who have dealt with their own post-traumatic stress disorder issues through art.
The couple, both in their mid-50s, have been in San Diego for nearly 10 years, and now teach others to paint through classes and events, with a special emphasis on therapeutic art healing for veterans and active-duty service members.
Since 2018, Cynthia’s Artistic Expressions was based out of a cozy Oceanside studio on Mission Avenue, but the couple elected recently to go mobile, taking their custom “sip and paint parties” on the road. Those parties typically combine a professionally led painting class in front of a group with beverages and sometimes music.
Recently, the parties have expanded to “sip, paint and gaze” events where budding artists sign up for a class and then gather at different spots, including weekly sessions on Fridays at the Mission Pacific Hotel in Oceanside, to watch the sunset and paint.
They also run a monthly “paint your pet” class at Pacific Coast Spirits & Kitchen, where people share a photograph of their pet beforehand, the Mays free sketch the photos, and then later they guide the artists step-by-step through painting their companion animals – from dogs and cats to horses, lizards, birds and fish.
“Our biggest thing is to better the community,” May said. “We want to teach something that is productive. We are teaching you painting skills that you can do when you go home. People tell us they then started sharing it with other people and painting with their kids.”
She said the pandemic opened her husband’s and her eyes to the use of the internet for teaching, and in 2020 pivoted their business to include online classes.
She said online art events are especially helpful when people are isolated and in places “where getting mental help is hard.”
“There are so many in need, and meanwhile they are waiting two or three months till those appointments for a therapist comes,” she said. “But there’s art therapy. Art doesn’t take the place of mental health help, but it is in addition to it and might be more palatable for a client versus just meds or traditional psychotherapy. We would like to see art as a prescription in addition to whatever else they’re doing.”
Art is a way to express yourself, release stress, and increase mental and emotional health, May believes.
“When I was a nurse at NorthShore (a hospital system in Illinois), I learned about art as a form of therapy,” she said. “My husband and I were both diagnosed with PTSD. Some of the things we had seen and went through during that time of Desert Shield, gearing up for Desert Storm, is what started the PTSD issues. But you know, you keep on doing what you do to keep going. It was not until much later that realized what was going on with me.
“My husband was diagnosed with chronic complex PTSD (which) just means he had it so long it almost becomes a part of your personality, and you don’t realize you are affected, it just becomes you. We thought, ‘What can we do to deal with all this anxiety we have?’ So we started doing art for ourselves.”
She said when she was transferred from the Chicago area to La Jolla to be a nursing supervisor in 2014, there were times when she saw that patients were agitated and acting out. She had long realized that art was a key to wellness.
“I was like, ‘Let’s bring in some music, some drawing,’ and then everyone would kind of calm down,” May said. “I had been researching just how helpful art is. Any art form – writing, dancing, singing acting. But our thing was the painting. These patients were dealing with pain and the art classes they took, that kept them together. I could see they weren’t shaking so much and not focusing on their pain.”
May said she said she has also found important healing work with members of local public safety groups, helping them with art as a technique to relax and de-stress. “We know those jobs are stressful, just like the military,” she said.